Four white fire lieutenants were denied promotions by Jacksonville's black former fire chief because of their race, a jury decided Friday, awarding them back pay after six years of litigation.
Jurors said race was the motivating factor in former Fire and Rescue Department Chief Ray Alfred's decision not to create rescue captain positions for the four lieutenants who were next in line for promotion in 1999. The jury's decision came after more than 10 hours of deliberation over two days.
Three of the men and one lieutenant's widow were awarded back pay of about $225,000 between them. Additionally, as a result of the verdict, U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan will now decide whether to order the city to promote the men to captain. No date was set for hearings on that decision.
The all-white jury awarded no damages for mental anguish or emotional pain, but that hardly mattered to the jubilant plaintiffs.
"We're grateful. We're relieved, and we're very happy," said their attorney, Scott Fortune. "It's made it clearer that any employment decision that's based on race should be illegal."
Susie Wiles, spokeswoman for Mayor John Peyton, said the city will study the verdict over the weekend and make a decision next week whether to appeal. In the meantime, Fire Chief Rick Barrett, who replaced Alfred in 2003, promised to abide by whatever the judge orders with regard to promotions.
City Hall attorney Ernst Mueller called the verdict disheartening.
"I think they got it wrong," he said. "I don't think that Ray Alfred discriminated."
Alfred, who was not in court Friday, was not available for comment.
The federal civil trial came at a time of racial unrest in the fire department, which is under investigation after the discovery of nooses placed with the equipment of two black firefighters.
The lawsuit focused on the denied promotions of Lts. Michael Price, George Williams, Mike Perryman and Nolen Sauls, who has since died. The department's rescue division chief had recommended them for captains' posts, but Alfred rejected the new positions after seeing the list of candidates.
Rescue Chief Thomas McCrone told one of the lieutenants that Alfred, who is black, said "the next four guys on the list don't represent the cultural diversity of the fire department," according to testimony. But McCrone later backed off that statement, saying he was angry about the decision but Alfred never used the word "diversity." He did say the chief wanted to open it up and increase opportunities for additional candidates, McCrone testified.
Alfred testified that it was simply a budgetary decision. He was later accused in court of calling New York firefighters "crackers," often regarded as a racially derogatory term. He explained that what he said was "door-crackers," referring to firefighters who have to crash down doors to fight a fire or attempt a rescue.
Mueller noted that Alfred promoted numerous white firefighters during his time as chief from 1995 to 2003. He said Alfred was the victim of resentment in the fire department because he was an outsider.
Former Mayor John Delaney testified that Alfred, whom he hired, was one of the best fire chiefs in the country. When Peyton took office, he replaced Alfred.
The trial spanned eight days. The eight jurors left court without comment.
Appeals court upholds reverse discrimination